Readers familiar with Beth Webb Hart will have no trouble recalling her previous titles, GRACE AT LOW TIDE and ADELAIDE PIPER. Both books made Booklist's top 10 Christian fiction books in 2006, and with good reason: Hart's writing style was utterly exquisite, and her skill as a storyteller matched her style.
THE WEDDING MACHINE represents something of a departure from her previous works, centered as they were on the interior lives of two young women. Make no mistake, the setting is still the South Carolina Low Country, and Hart's Southern sensibilities emerge once again in her descriptions of both the social structure of a small town in the South and the low country itself. But here the focus is on a group of four longtime female friends, now in middle age with daughters to marry off.
Hilda, Ray, Sis and Kitty B. have inherited from their mothers the task of organizing Jasper's weddings, at least within their own social circle and the congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church. Known as the Wedding Guild, the four women have this whole wedding thing down to a science. If anything upsets the proceedings, it won't be due to a lack of planning on their part. Every detail, down to the Krazy Glue in the emergency wedding-day box, has been carefully attended to by the human "wedding machine."
Things get hairy, though, one summer when the machine begins to break down. Hilda, who has been holed up in her house ever since her husband left her nearly two years earlier, makes an appearance just long enough to stir things up before hiding herself away once again. Ray faces a crisis of monumental proportions --- given her Southern upbringing, that is --- when her daughter makes the mistake of her life, to Ray's way of thinking. The never-married Sis, still grieving over the loss of the love of her life decades earlier, struggles with her lack of attraction to the single minister everyone wants to pair her up with. Kitty B. continues to live a life of not-so-quiet exasperation with her chronically ill, apparently hypochondriac husband. And although these women have been best friends their entire adult lives, several harbor deep secrets that they have never shared with each other and that go a long way in explaining their personalities and relationship challenges.
The story itself is among the book's strengths, as is Hart's attention to detail. (One detail could have used a bit of an explanation, though: the frequent references to "shagging." It's clear from the context that it's a dance, but a brief description of the Carolina shag would have helped keep readers' minds from wandering to that other, slangy meaning of shag; think "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.") However, I found the introduction of so many characters so early on to be confusing. By the middle of the book, the four main characters had settled into their distinctive personalities, and at that point the storyline did become easier to follow. Another problem, though, was the juxtaposition of flashbacks and the current storyline. For whatever reason --- perhaps the layout method used to distinguish now from then --- I found it difficult to keep my bearings with regard to the various time periods.
Even with those flaws, THE WEDDING MACHINE surpasses many of its cousins in Christian fiction. Readers of Southern fiction --- or anyone who has lived in the "real" South --- will no doubt enjoy this glimpse into the lives of four women thoroughly entrenched in the ways of the Old South.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on February 5, 2008